Ch'an Newsletter - No. 32 September 1983

Samsara and Nirvana
Lecture given July 24, 1983 by Master Sheng-yen

Samsara, the world of suffering and endless birth cycles, and nirvana, enlightenment and escape from rebirth, are really the same. Two analogies illustrate this point.

Let us first take the example of visual error. Sometimes we might have a problem with our eyes. We rub them and things will look different. Objects placed before our eyes in a certain way, or certain designs, may create optical illusions. People with cataracts, a thin film over the eyes, may see things differently. There is a "flying mosquito" disease where one has the impression that insects are constantly flying in front of his eyes. The sutras speak of the illusion of seeing "flowers in the air." Usually, if we have any of these problems, we know that it is an eye problem, but some people may think what they are seeing is real. They may actually think they are seeing mosquitoes or flowers flying in the air. When they are cured, they will no longer see these things. Is this because the mosquitoes or the flowers have suddenly disappeared? No, it is because the problem with the eyes has been eliminated.

The second analogy refers to refining gold. After the gold ore is found and mined, it is smelted and processed until nothing but refined gold is left, The gold was in the ore from the beginning, but some people might think that the refined gold and the gold ore are two different things, that the gold ore was somehow changed into the refined gold. But a chemist knows that the primary ingredient, the pure gold itself, was there from the beginning. If it was not there from the beginning., there would be no gold to be refined.

To what do these analogies refer? In another lecture I pointed out that samsara is an illusion that we have only when we have vexations. This is a mind problem. We saw that when the eye problem was cured, the illusion of mosquitoes or flowers was removed, and therefore we would not see them. But more importantly we realize that there were no mosquitoes or flowers to be seen in the first place. Likewise, when we cure our mind problem, we will no longer believe in samsara; and, indeed, we will understand that it never even existed.

Mind problems? Mind disease? Such problems are unknown to a surgeon. A psychiatrist may have some sense of them. The deeper your practice, the more you wil1 understand the nature of mind problems. Some people have said that this Center is like a mental hospital. In some ways it is true. The Buddha said that if you have a physical problem, go to a physician; if you have a mental problem, go to Buddhadharma.

From the point of view of Buddhadharma, everybody has a serious mental problem.. How many of you think you have no mental problems? If you raised your hand, then that indicates that you have a problem. If you didn't raise your hand, then at least you have some idea that you have a problem. A drunk will never admit that he's drunk.. If you notice that you're whoozy, and you say that you are drunk -- then you're relatively sober.

What does it mean to have mind problems? It means that your mind is not balanced -- rationally or emotionally that your judgment cannot be one hundred per cent correct. You will be biased like a family with a husband, his wife, and her sister. Often as not the sisters will take sides against the husband. Or you will be ambivalent like one of my disciples, who came to me a few days ago and said that he wanted me to go and yet he also wanted me to stay at the Center. On one hand he wanted me to go so there would be no one to tell him what to do. On the other, if I left, there would be no one here to help him. A heroin user is faced with such a problem: he wants to give up the drug, but he is unable. When people act on the basis of such confused mental states, they will often commit crimes. This is the case with Hinkley and the shooting of President Reagan. The verdict was not guilty by reason of insanity. When people act harmfully against us, we should realize that they, have mental problems. When one has such a problem, he may not know what he is doing. Or if he does realize what is happening, he might not be able to help himself -- like a car with faulty breaks.

How can we be cured from such sickness? Many people do not realize that the mind or spirit needs a great deal of education. Certainly there are foundations for the treatment of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc., but not that much attention is given to treating the problems of the spirit. First one must investigate his hopes, fears, desires, etc. Only by Such self examination can we improve. Of course the best method to accomplish this, is meditation. With practice one can have fewer and fewer thoughts. Too many thoughts and you won't be able to see yourself clearly. Once we get to the stage where we can control our thoughts, then we can think or not think as we please. At this point our mind sickness will disappear. The mind wil1 not be in a state of confusion. There will be no random thoughts. We wil1 be in harmony with nature, and our Judgment will be unbiased. We will be able 'to accept the bad things that happen to us and the good things that come to us.

When the mind is finally cleared, there will be no virtue and no evil. There will be no samsara and no nirvana. The idea that there is samsara and nirvana is something that we need at first in order to practice. It increases our faith and our efforts. It is like medicine for a man suffering from a disease. When he is cured there is no need for the medicine. In the same way when our minds are cured, we wi11 not need the concepts of samsara and nirvana. We will realize that they are not two different things; indeed, they are not even one thing. They are illusions that a clear mind will know never even existed.

Let us now explain the analogy of gold ore and refined gold. The pure, refined gold refers to the pure mind in each of us. It represents the potential in all of us to be free of suffering. Just like the first analogy of the eye once beset by illusion now free of mosquitoes or flowers; our mind, once refined, will be rid of its impurities -- vexation and suffering. Through practice, we will discard our impurities and refine our minds. And when we reach enlightenment, if we ask what has been discarded - the impurities -- can we say that they exist or that they ever existed? It is at this point that our analogies might break down. They are only analogies -- guides to practice -- they cannot be followed completely.

From the point of view of Ch'an vexation and wisdom, samsara and nirvana are not different -- they do not, in fact, even exist. Like water whipped into waves by the wind, the substance, water, is always the same, no matter what state it is in. This is the most important thing for us to understand. We must also remember that we should only use analogies in so far as they make sense and guide us in practice.

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